The ancient hill town of Cortona at first glance is yet another stone clad Tuscan settlement. However, this is a popular tourist spot because of it’s links with antiquity and myths. It is easy to miss some very important highlights – the Fortress of Girifalco, the Cortona Duomo (the15th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta) and the Etruscan Cortona Museum (MAEC). So, this is one of the best and most important towns to visit if you are a history lover.
It is also a popular stopping point because the nearby villa Bramasole (built in 1504) was used as the location for the 2003 film Under the Tuscan Sun.
It is also possibly the highest town in Southern Tuscany at 500m above sea level, draped over the rising hillsides of the pre-Apennines, so you get incredibly far reaching views.
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After the Roman conquest in the 3rd century, the damaged parts of the walls were reconstructed and four gates were constructed at the exits from the Roman city.
They make a pretty dramatic entrance to this ancient hill town of Cortona.
The people who first settled here were the Etruscans. By 600 BC they had turned Cortona into a powerful city-state.
There is a rather wonderful myth attached to this ancient hill town of Cortona that takes it beginnings back to another people
108 years after the Great Flood, Noah entered the Chiana Valley via the Tiber and Paglia rivers. Noah preferred this place better than anywhere else in Italy, because it was so fertile, and stayed for thirty years. One of Noah’s sons, named Crano, came to the hilltop and, liking the high position, the fine countryside and the calm air, built the city of Cortona on it, 273 years after the Great Flood.
Whoever the original descendants were, today the locals are fit and slim due to the impossibly steep streets. There is only one horizontal street in the whole town!
Etruscan buildings are still all over the town.
However, the palazzo Comunal (the town hall) and it’s clock tower was built later in the 13th century and has been remodelled over the centuries but its foundations are far older, reaching many feet below ground level into Cortona’s Etruscan origins.
Interestingly, the Etruscans were phenomenal architects and engineers. It is thought that the Romans (famous for their engineering) copied them!
This is in the main square, the piazza della Repubblica, which looks a little rustic and crumbling.
It is characterised by a picturesque staircase from where it is not uncommon to see a pair of newlyweds being photographed there.
Unexpectedly and easy to miss is an extensive and impressive museum tucked in its backstreets ‘The Etruscan Academy Museum of Cortona (MAEC)’. It chronicles the history and showcases the achievements of the Etruscans, “whom the Romans, in their usual neighbourly fashion, wiped out entirely”.
It is said that, “It’s one of the most important Etruscan museums in Italy, and therefore the world … and it’s always getting bigger as they dig up more things.”
Artefacts have led experts to describe the original settlers of the town as “the long-nosed, sensitive-footed, subtly smiling Etruscans”!
This is a town full of Roman history too. They basically ‘sacked’ the town and killed off all the Etruscans around 300BC. But the museum is focused on the more distant settlers saying, “Everyone knows about the Romans. It’s the Etruscans that need the publicity.”
The museum is located in the 14th century Palazzo Casali in Piazza Signorelli (adjacent to the town hall square), former residence of the lords of Cortona.
There are four floors to the museum. You can go below ground into a series of low-lit cellar rooms where many beautiful artefacts are on display, including black-figured Greek plates and bowls, an ivory sphinx and many storage jars and funerary urns.
One of the most precious pieces is the Tabula Cortonensis, a bronze tablet covered in one of the longest known Etruscan texts (a contract of some sort).
I seems that you need to really take notice in this quiet little town otherwise you’ll walk by all the interesting stuff. Even the food market is discrete here.
It is probably the steepest town we have visited in Tuscany! Wear comfy shoes and bring money for water, it’s a thigh aching workout. Still, when you get too tired, just stop for a photo!
We continued to climb.
Look out for the Cortona Duomo – the 15th Century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The original church was one of the oldest if not the oldest church in Cortona, possibly dating from the 4th Century and built on the foundations of a pagan temple.
We must have blindly walked passed it. Instead, it was the San Francesco church we went into. It’s a complex which includes the church and a convent. It is believed that the area was home to ancient Roman thermal baths.
There was some beautiful piped music playing and a deep sense of peace and tranquility within the church.
Continuing upwards past the church there are many typical pretty narrow streets and medieval buildings.
You get to a spot where there is a tiny square with a round ‘bunker’ looking structure. This actually used to be an old fresh water spring, where locals could drink the water.
Piazza della Perscaia is situated between the two churches of San Niccolò and San Cristoforo. This area was once the place of a Roman cistern.
This part is now a green space surrounded by houses dating around 1600.
They have tiny front gardens, the only ones we have seen in the town.
At the highest part of the square is San Cristoforo church which contains the chapel of the nativity dating back to the sixteenth century. This is a smarter area of this ancient hill town of Cortona.
Characteristic medieval houses with Roman streets are found off the square.
If you follow the ancient street, laid by the Romans when they settled the area, it ends at a gate. It appears to lead out to nowhere, but you’ll get some incredible views.
You’ll see sweeping panoramas of the Val di Chiana landscape (actually reclaimed swampland!). This photo doesn’t show it but you can glimpse the shimmering waters of Trasimeno lake in the distance.
It is the scene of setting of Hannibal’s ambush of the Roman army in 217 BC. Today, it couldn’t look more peaceful.
At this point we felt we were at the top of the town. But, we wasn’t. The Girifalco Fortress is situated at the highest part of Cortona. When you think you are at the top, just keep going. Your thighs will be burning but you are nearly there!
The first historical records describing a ‘strong and beautiful fortress’ date back to 1258 AD, however it is thought that a fortress has been situated on the hilltop overlooking Cortona since the 5th or 6th century BC.
It took on it’s appearance you see today during the Medici years (middle of the 17th century).
The views and sunsets from there are said to be incredible.
But we missed it.
We did notice some decent looking restaurants in the town, however.
The ancient hill town of Cortona is well worth visiting, especially if you love history. Some of the other hill towns we have visited on this trip were the wine mecca Montepulciano and the romantic Pienza.
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Other things to do and see in Tuscany